By Kelly Bowen
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The rogue’s life has been good to William Somerhall: He has his fortune, his racehorses, and his freedom. Then he moves in with his mother. It seems the eccentric Dowager Duchess of Worth has been barely skirting social disaster-assisted by one Miss Jenna Hughes, who is far too bright and beautiful to be wasting her youth as a paid companion. Now home to keep his mother from ruin, William intends to learn what’s afoot by keeping his friends close-and the tempting Miss Hughes closer still.
. . . UNTIL HE MEETS HER
He’s tall, dark, and damnably intelligent-unfortunately for Jenna. She and the duchess are in the “redistribution business,” taking from the rich and giving to the poor, and it’s going great – until he shows up. But even as William plots to make an honest woman out of her, Jenna will use all her wiles to reveal just how bad a rogue he can be . . .
Table of Contents
A Preview of You’re the Earl That I Want
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London, England, June 1817
William Somerhall, Duke of Worth, glared at the clock on the mantel.
It was a terrifically horrid piece, cast in some sort of heavy metal that he supposed was meant to look like bronze. Robust chickens pranced their way across the top of it, spindly legs interspersed with leafy vines that ended in pumpkins. Or turnips. From where he sat, it was hard to tell which.
The hands of the clock were in the shape of feathers and painted a garish red, and they marched around in circles, ticking incessantly. Bits of red paint had been applied to the combs of the cast roosters above the face, and the entire thing looked positively ghoulish in the glowing firelight.
"If you like the clock so much, Worth, you can take it with you."
Will tore his gaze from the hands relentlessly creeping around the face. "Have I ever mentioned how much I hate chickens?"
"Repeatedly," the Earl of Boden drawled, though not without some sympathy.
The minute hand reached half past and the clock chimed, reminding Will he should leave. Leave the warmth of the fire roaring in the hearth. Leave the company of a dear friend, the pursuit of a good card game, and the bliss of a truly superb brandy, to ride the mile and a half to his mother's dower house. To be tortured.
"Dear God, but I don't want to go. Please don't make me."
The Earl of Boden raised his palms in defense. "I've never succeeded in making you do anything. In fact, I'm quite happy to have you drinking in my drawing room, donating your money to my coffers. Another three rounds of cards and I believe I will have won enough from you to buy a new clock."
Will grinned at his friend despite himself. "It is the ugliest clock I've ever seen."
"It came with the title and house. Like everything else I never wanted." Boden fixed his bright-blue eyes on the duke. "But you really should go. It's only a dinner party, for Christ's sake. And she's your mother."
Will glanced again at the offending timepiece and made a face. "If my mother had her way, I'd suffer through every single one of her weekly dinner parties."
"How bad can they possibly be?"
"Which part? The part where she will skewer me with questions about my life I have no intention of answering? Or leaves me with whey-faced virgins who are calculating my net worth and testing my title on their tongues? Or parks me in front of stuffy peers who pressure me to adopt whatever cause they are currently championing?"
"She has good intentions, Worth. Any mother who cared about her son would do the same." The earl gave him a long look. "And it wouldn't kill you to find a girl to marry and a cause to champion. You're a duke, in case you've forgotten."
"I've already found the girl I want to marry."
Boden snorted. "Ah, yes, the mysterious woman who disappeared from your ball last year like an enchanted princess."
"I'm quite certain she wasn't actually a princess. But she was utterly enchanting."
"Did you ever stop to think, Worth, that the idea of marriage to this woman appeals to you because she doesn't exist? I'm sure marriage to an imaginary woman would be sublime." The earl rolled his eyes. "An imaginary cause would be just as good."
"Harsh words from my unmarried, cause-less friend."
Boden sighed patiently. "I have a cause, Worth. It's called a business. Something I've been managing on my own for a long while. And if I could find time to unearth a woman who doesn't care my title was accidental and my fortune was made in trade, and could multiply six-digit numbers in her head on demand, I'd marry her on the spot."
Will scoffed. "Say the word, my friend, and I'll find you one who likes money. I trip over them everywhere I go. The mathematical requirement might be more difficult."
The earl smiled a rare smile and waved his hand. "Go to your mother's, Worth. Before she just plain skewers you for missing another one of her dinners. Or worse, blames me. You can't avoid her indefinitely."
Boden was right. Will had ducked the last half dozen invitations she'd sent him, and the guilt was starting to nag at him. He'd successfully avoided the dower house for more years than he could count off the top of his head. He supposed he should go, if only to verify the house still stood and was in good repair. Will employed staff who dealt with that sort of thing, but still. He really should make an effort.
Sighing, Will reluctantly heaved himself to his feet. With luck he would arrive at the very end of the party, after the gentlemen had already debated their passions well into the depths of their port and the women had come to terms with the fact that the duke would not be available to dance attendance on their unmarried daughters. He had no idea why his mother insisted on these parties. All she accomplished was providing the ton with a week's worth of gossip.
He wondered if the duchess even realized just how peculiar everyone believed her to be.
"How is the duchess these days?" Boden asked carefully, as if reading his mind.
"Oh, God," Will groaned. "What have you heard now?"
The earl made a tactful noise somewhere in his throat. "Nothing of import." He paused. "Does she still keep… ah, birds?"
"The chickens, you mean? The ones she insists on carting around everywhere like ugly avian lapdogs to balls and musicales and garden parties?"
The earl winced.
"Yes." Will scowled. And all that stood between his eccentric mother and outright ridicule from the whole of London society was the fact that she was a duchess. And that her son was a duke who wouldn't stand for it. "Have I mentioned recently how much I hate chickens?"
"Have you tried talking to her about it?"
"She doesn't want to hear anything I have to say. Though I suppose I can't really blame her, for nothing I have to say on that particular topic is pleasant." Will yanked on his coat, his mood souring more with every passing minute.
Will's jaw clenched.
"Take her the clock as a peace offering." The earl gestured at the poultry-covered clock.
"Are you trying to be funny, Boden?"
"No." The earl sighed. "I'm trying to be helpful. You're going to have to have a conversation with your mother, and you're going to have to have it soon, whether you want to or not."
Will grumbled under his breath. His mother's eccentricity was accelerating, and everyone knew it. "I will." He stabbed his fingers into his gloves.
"I appreciated your company tonight, Worth," the earl said, and Will was relieved that Boden had let the subject drop. "It was a welcome distraction from, well, everything as of late."
"Of course." Will turned back to his oldest and dearest friend. "If I recall, you did the same for me after my father died. The only difference being, of course, that you actually liked your father."
"Will, your father might not have been perfect—"
"My father was cruel and used everyone around him to achieve his own ends, including his family. There has never been any point in pretending otherwise." Will took a deep breath. "Your father wasn't perfect either, but he was a good man and I'm sorry that he's gone. He was always kind to me and my sister."
Boden suddenly looked tired.
Impulsively Will clasped him on the shoulder. "I'm here to help, you know that, right? I promise, whatever you need, you just have to ask."
"Thank you." The earl smiled faintly. "Now go, so that you might live long enough to make good on that promise. It's getting late."
Will took one last look at the clock and sighed again. It wasn't nearly late enough.
The dower house was situated on the far western side of his Breckenridge estate, closer to the Earl of Boden's ancient manor house than to his own mansion. Twilight was settling comfortably over the land, deepening the shadows on the sides of the path that connected the two properties and illuminating the leaves and grassy ridges with silver. Will allowed his mare to wander along the narrow path, in no hurry to arrive at his mother's and in no hurry to risk his mare's legs in rabbit holes.
Idly he wondered if anyone would believe he'd fallen from his horse if he dismounted and rolled around in the leaves and mud. A purported tumble would make him quite late, or better yet, unable to attend at all. It would, however, also ruin the new coat of black superfine he'd just purchased, and he couldn't bring himself to do that to such a splendid garment. The tailor who had crafted the coat was a true artist and to purposefully destroy such a creation would be something approaching sacrilege.
His mare scrambled up out of the trees and onto the road, and Will sighed. Up ahead the lights of the dower house were just coming into view, a soft glow winking through the multi-paned windows. Once he was closer, he knew the sounds of the pianoforte would become audible if the windows were open. His mother would be dressed to perfection, the meal would have been splendid, and everyone would be lingering over the fine wines and liquors that would be flowing freely, and pretending to ignore the chicken clutched under the duchess's arm.
Will was tired of pretending. But he didn't have the smallest idea how to fix it.
He'd suggested to his mother just a few weeks ago that she hire a companion. A capable soul who would be the perfect answer to his mother's escalating unpredictability, unerringly guiding the duchess back from the edge of eccentricity. His mother had informed him she already had a companion—in fact, had had one for years. Another stab of guilt had pierced him, with the realization that he hadn't even been aware. And perhaps therein was the problem.
Absently Will guided his mare to the side of the road, still mulling over the problem that was his mother as a carriage clattered by in the opposite direction, the horses moving at a rapid clip. Even as a child, Will had never been close with the duchess. He knew she'd done the best she could, but all her energy and efforts had seemed to go into managing his father's angry moods. She'd spent her entire life trying to love the only person who wasn't capable of loving her back. Of loving anyone, for that matter. Perhaps Will should have spent more time with her once his father had died. Perhaps that would have bridged this chasm that seemed to have opened up, filled with ignorance and lack of understanding.
Another carriage was barreling up the road. Will frowned at the speed of it. He'd never drive his horses like that in the dark. The equipage rumbled past him, and his mare tossed its head at the pebbles that were scattered from beneath the wheels. A horse and rider were galloping behind the carriage, the man's coattails flapping in the wind, making him look like an oversize bat in the darkness. Will stared as the rider thundered by, not even acknowledging his presence.
Will urged his mare into a trot. Up ahead a third carriage threaded the stone posts that flanked the driveway and turned in the direction of town, its lanterns swinging wildly. From the house a shout reached his ears on the breeze, then another. Alarm began to clamor. Something was wrong. His mare broke into a canter, and Will allowed it to lengthen its stride, less fearful of the footing on the road.
Another carriage lurched up the driveway. The mare veered around it, Will's focus on the house ahead. Nothing appeared to have collapsed or to be in imminent danger of burning to the ground, which offered a small measure of relief, but did not bode well for what he might find inside. He had visions of his mother lying hurt or worse, and by the time he reached the circular drive leading up to the wide stone steps, his horse was at a full gallop.
The last carriage remaining was being brought around hurriedly by a harried coachman he didn't recognize. Will ignored them all, desperate only to reach his mother and whatever disaster had befallen her within. Whatever her eccentricities, no matter her peculiarities, he loved her and couldn't bear the thought of her suffering.
Coming to a skidding halt in front of the wide stone steps, Will leaped from the saddle and took the steps two at a time, the rush of flight and fear making his legs unsteady. He reached for the handles of the heavy doors, but they crashed open before he could touch them, narrowly missing his face. A matronly woman tumbled out, squealing in distress and with her face flushed an alarming color. She made a desperate beeline for the waiting carriage. On her heels a white missile followed, careening into the night amid a flurry of wings and loud squawking. Will ducked instinctively.
"Lady Gainsey? What—Gack!" A second hen hit Will square in the chest in an explosion of feathers before he could finish his sentence. He stumbled backward, landing hard on his rear.
"God almighty," he wheezed, swatting frantically at the chicken that seemed to have become temporarily entangled in his cravat. The bird screeched its displeasure before flapping away after its comrade, and Will was left flat on his back, staring up at tiny bits of down floating around his ears. A deafening crash came from somewhere inside the house.
Will swore before shoving himself to his feet, only to be nearly mowed down again by a burly man, wide eyes peering at him from under a disheveled wig that had been fashionable fifty years earlier.
"Your Grace," the older man spluttered, hurrying after his wife into the waiting carriage. "Thank God you're here!"
A wave of panic once again assailed Will. "Is my mother all right?"
The man paused at the door of the carriage long enough to give Will a look of utter disbelief. "All right? Your mother is a menace!"
Will felt his mouth drop open. "I beg your pardon?"
"Er, that is to say," the man spluttered at Will's expression, "I—" He didn't get to finish before he was yanked into the interior of the carriage with enough force to knock his wig from his head and into the dust. The carriage door snapped shut, and the vehicle lurched off down the drive.
Will gaped after it for a half second before turning toward the house, his heart in his throat. He dashed through the doors left hanging ajar and staggered to an abrupt halt as he laid eyes on the tableau before him.
His mother's hall looked as though it had been plundered and pillaged by a horde of barbarian invaders. The chairs nearest the fireplace had been overturned and with them a small end table. A large vase lay victim at its side, a thousand pieces of blue-and-white porcelain strewn across the gleaming floor amid a puddle of water and scattered roses. At his feet a glove lay forlorn and forgotten, and the remnants of a lady's hat sat crushed in a corner. On the richly papered walls, a cracked mirror hung crooked, and as he stared in disbelief, a piece fell from the frame with a resounding crash.
And everything, everywhere, was covered with a fine scattering of white feathers.
"There you are, you little bastard."
The voice was low and vicious, and Will jerked in alarm, instinctively dropping to a crouch and backing out of the hall, groping for a weapon he didn't have. His heart was pounding, and he was breathing hard. What manner of outlaw was stalking the hall? And had he been seen? And where was his mother?
"Come to momma now," the voice crooned, and Will felt a bead of cold sweat slide down his back. He snatched a parasol from where it had been abandoned near the door and crept back out into the night, pressing himself flat against the wall. It wasn't much but it was better than nothing if he needed to defend himself.
Cautiously he peered around the doorframe.
A behemoth of a woman was stalking across the hall, the sleeves of her dress shoved to her elbows and her apron covered in blood. A massive butcher knife was tucked into the apron strings against her hip, and her eyes held the promise of murder. Will swallowed with difficulty, tightening his grip on the parasol.
Except she wasn't looking at him. Her slitted eyes were trained instead on the ornate mantelpiece, where another chicken flapped in disgruntlement.
The leviathan crept closer to the wall and stopped, wiping a forearm the size of an oak across her forehead. "I got yer friends," she murmured, holding up her left hand, in which two other birds dangled and struggled. "Let's just make this easy, hmmm?"
The chicken on the mantel spread its wings in defiance, but with a speed that belied her size, the woman's arm shot out and seized the hen before the bird could make good on its escape. The chicken screeched, and Will flinched.
"I got 'em all, Your Grace," she bellowed at the top of her considerable lungs.
A second later a door opened at the rear of the hall, and his mother swept in.
"Thank you, Margaret," she said pleasantly. "Well done."
Will put a hand out to steady himself, relief making him feel a little wobbly. The duchess was safe. She wasn't lying hurt or bleeding or dying. In fact, not a strand of her carefully coiffed white hair was out of place, nor was a stitch askew in her fashionable dinner gown. She did not seem unduly distressed or even upset. And Will suddenly recalled that Margaret, the Amazon brandishing the knife, was only his mother's oversize cook.
Will's panic and fear started a rapid descent down the slippery slope of irritation and anger.
The Earl of Boden had been right. Will needed to have a conversation with his mother, and he needed to have it soon. A dozen of the most distinguished aristocrats had just been driven out of his mother's home by a flock of pampered poultry. Not to mention the demolition of the hall. And the destruction of the reputation and credibility of his mother. And by association himself.
God, but he hated chickens.
Will began to straighten, but his mother's voice checked him.
"Did you find Phillip?" The duchess had moved to the bottom of the stairs and was peering up into the empty space, still oblivious to his presence.
Phillip? Who the hell was Phillip?
"Yes." A disembodied female voice floated down faintly from the first floor. "He was in your bed again."
Will felt his eyes bulge.
"Thank goodness." His mother put a hand to her chest in obvious relief. "How is he?"
"He seems a little stiff. Do you think I should give him a rub or just try to warm him up?"
Will sucked in a breath in an attempt to dispel the black spots that had begun to dance in front of his eyes. A mental image of a naked man sprawled across his mother's bed popped unbidden into his mind. And then the duchess entered the sordid scene, and Will ruthlessly stomped on the vision before his imaginary mother could discard any imaginary clothing.
The duchess tipped her head in consideration. "Bring him here and we'll put him in the kitchens. It will be easier to set him to rights there. It's warmer."
"Very good. I'll be right down with him."
Oh, dear God. Whatever was going on in his mother's household was far, far worse than he had originally thought. Will mentally girded himself for the conflict he was about to charge into, knowing it was unavoidable.
A woman was now descending the main stairs, presumably preceding Phillip, and as Will's gaze fell on her a strange, inexplicable frisson of awareness skittered through him.
The woman was tall and lithe, her plain gown of insipid blue serge doing absolutely nothing to disguise the fluid grace with which she moved. Her hair was dark as pitch, pulled back in an unadorned knot at the back of her head, yet the simplicity only served to display the elegance of her neck and the striking angles of her face. Will felt the floor tilt beneath his feet.
It was she.
He recognized her instantly as his enchanting, mysterious princess. He'd spoken to her only once, at the ball he'd hosted at Breckenridge a year ago. He'd not had the chance to learn her name, and in the chaos that had ensued that evening, she'd simply disappeared. Though certainly not from his memory. He'd been captivated that night, enthralled by her beauty and her poise, but no amount of inquiry in the assembly halls, the clubs, or the drawing rooms of London had given him the gift of her identity. Yet somehow, impossibly, the woman who had haunted his imaginings stood in his mother's ruined hall, even more breathtaking than he remembered.
"He's not injured, is he?" his mother asked, and Will could hear the concern in her voice.
"No, he seems quite all right." The woman had reached the bottom of the stairs, and her voice was warm and throaty. Will sucked in his breath at the evocative familiarity of it. Just the sound made his blood heat and his pulse skip. She exuded heat and vitality, and Will found himself shamelessly spellbound.
Until he became aware she was holding something in her hands.
The thing was at least as thick as his arm and the length of his leg, its skin a smooth, glistening patchwork of rich mahogany and black. Every once in a while, a forked tongue would flick out to test the air as its head swiveled. Gently, like a pagan goddess, the woman lifted the snake and settled it about her shoulders, where it curled, to all appearances sublimely content. His mother clucked in approval.
William thought he might have made a strangled noise somewhere in the back of his throat. Breathing seemed to have become a chore. Revulsion warred with awe.
The forgotten chickens, still clutched in Margaret's hands, seemed to catch sight of reptilian death and suddenly renewed their frantic struggling and squawking.
"You want I should put these back in the drawing room, Your Grace?" Margaret asked his mother, holding up the birds.
"Yes, please. The two that got out will likely find their way to the stables sometime tonight. You can check in the morning and bring them back then."
"Very good, Your Grace." The cook bobbed her head and disappeared through a doorway on one side of the hall.
The duchess looked around the hall and put her hands on her ample hips. "So unnecessary," she said with a faint hint of disgust. "Clearly I did not secure the latch on the cage properly this afternoon."
The goddess shrugged, unconcerned, though there was amusement in her gesture. "I thought the crystal might implode, the way Lady Wilston was screaming."
"Hmph." The duchess's lips twitched. "She certainly ruined a perfectly good dinner. And Margaret had gone to such work, what with the soup and the stuffed fish."
"The soup was quite delicious," the goddess agreed.
"She even made lemon tarts for dessert," the duchess said regretfully.
"More for us now, though."
"Did she use lemon in the fish as well, do you suppose?"
"Indeed. Mixed with pepper in the most pleasing manner."
"I wonder if she would make it again?"
"I'm sure she would. With biscuits and butter, perhaps. Now that would be delightful."
Will was aware his mouth had fallen open again, and he made an effort to close it. There had been chickens in the drawing room and there was a beautiful woman with a snake around her neck, and his mother was standing there, idly discussing the menu.
Will shut his eyes, wondering if he was the only sane one left.
"I believe Lady Wilston thought Lord Gainsey was taking liberties under the dinner table," his goddess was saying in that throaty voice of hers, laughter bubbling just below the surface.
Will's eyes popped open. Her words and her tone made him wonder if his princess might be a courtesan. But her clothing in no way supported that supposition. Her dress was proper to the point of being prudish, and the fabric sat more like sacking than silk. And why the hell would his mother be entertaining a courtesan? Then again, why did his mother do anything she did?
"Ah. I was wondering why she was blushing and squirming like that." The duchess snickered.
Will blinked in alarm. This was not a suitable—
"I do suppose it would have been a bit of a surprise. 'Tis not every day one finds a python up one's skirts," the goddess said.
A line of sweat broke out along Will's forehead as comprehension dawned, along with horror. Was she saying that… thing had crawled up Lady Wilston's skirts?
Good Christ, but he would have screamed too.
"Just looking for a warm place, I imagine," she continued.
"Probably the first to have that view in years," the duchess drawled, chuckling. "Don't know how warm it would have been."
Will choked and felt himself blush to the roots of his hair, something he hadn't done since he was fourteen.
The dark-haired woman only laughed.
"We might have made it to dessert had Lord Gainsey not left the table then," his mother mused.
"Lady Wilston certainly would have," the goddess murmured with smoky innuendo.
The duchess guffawed, and William lost his balance where he was crouched, falling into the open doorway and landing hard on his backside for the second time that night.
Both women whirled in surprise.
The duchess froze until she caught sight of William. Shock shadowed her features so quickly that Will was certain he had imagined it. He blinked, and his mother's face creased into her customary expression of vapid delight.
"Worth, darling, whatever are you doing on your hands and knees in my hall? Have you lost something?"
An unwelcome embarrassment pricked, and Will scrambled to his feet with as much ducal dignity as he could muster. "No, Mother, I have not lost anything." Like his temper. Yet.
She gave him a puzzled look. "If you've come for dinner, you've missed it." She sniffed accusingly. "Again."
Will strode forward into the wreckage of the room, porcelain crunching beneath his boots, and eyed his mother. He ignored the snake and the goddess it was draped over with incredible effort. For now.
One thing at a time.
"I thought you were hurt. Or sick. Or dying."
"Good heavens. Why would you think such a thing?" The duchess looked mystified now.
"Because I was nearly run down by a great number of carriages fleeing your home. Because I arrived here to find this." He gestured at the wreckage of their surroundings.
"Pssht." She shrugged indifferently as though this were all a regular occurrence.
With a horrible sinking feeling, Will began to suspect that it was.
The duchess pulled out a quizzing glass and was peering closely at him. "Good heavens, Worth darling, but you look a state. Your hair is a mess and what on earth happened to your cravat? And is that a parasol you're holding? Please tell me you didn't go out looking like this tonight."
Will looked down at the lacy parasol still clutched in his hand and threw it to the side as though it had burned him. "I thought you were dying, Mother," he gritted. He could feel a muscle working along his jaw.
"I'm quite fine, as you can see." She waved her hand airily, dislodging a feather from Will's shoulder.
"Tell me you're not still keeping chickens in the house," he said, trying to keep his voice even.
- "Where have you been all my life, Kelly Bowen? If Julia Quinn, Sarah MacLean, and Lisa Kleypas were to extract their writing DNA, mix it in a blender, and have a love child, Kelly Bowen would be it."—HeroesandHeartbreakers.com
- "Bowen's impish sense of humor is expressed by lively, entertaining characters in this wickedly witty Regency. This is pure romantic fun."—Publishers Weekly
- "4 1/2 Stars! This is a shining example of Bowen's ability to make readers both laugh (at the wry and witty dialogue) and cry (at the poignancy within the romance). With wonderful characters, a quick pace and heated sensuality, Bowen has a winner."—RT Book Reviews
- "A sexy and sparkling Regency gem... Don't miss out!"—Julia London, New York Times bestselling author
- "Fans of Julia Quinn and Sarah MacLean will adore Kelly Bowen!"—Lauren Willig, New York Times bestselling author
- "Kelly Bowen is a fresh new voice with a shining future!"—Teresa Medeiros, New York Times bestselling author
- On Sale
- Apr 28, 2015
- Page Count
- 368 pages